It’s Been A Week

Seeking a way to start again

As my pastor said today in his sermon, “It’s been a week.” He was referring, of course, to the many disturbing events that were in the forefront of the news.

  • Matthew Shepard was laid to rest 20 years after he was beaten and left to die because he was gay.
  • A caravan of people walking from Central America to our border, where 800 U.S. troops will prevent them from seeking asylum from the violence and poverty they are trying to leave behind.
  • A mentally unstable man and Trump supporter with a long rap sheet mailed pipe bombs to prominent Democrats.
  • Eleven people were gunned down inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
  • 400,000 children are at risk of dying from malnutrition in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia wages war by cutting off food supplies to civilians.

As a country, as a world, it has been a week. A week that reflects an ongoing intolerance of “the other.” Can the bar get any lower?

My pastor’s comment made me consider my week. Mine has been a week as well, but in a very different, hopeful way.

  • I began fostering an 18-month-old golden retriever rescued from neglect and abuse. After a few days of adjusting, she has shown that indomitable spirit of her breed.
  • A friend who was diagnosed with sarcoma this past summer and has been through chemo and two surgeries met with her oncologist, who gave her every reason to believe she is going to survive.
  • A dear aunt—the last of her generation in my family—passed away peacefully, surrounded by loved ones who were able to say their good-byes. While we will all miss her down-to-earth goodness, we will gather to celebrate her 94 years and acknowledge those other loved ones gone before her who are now welcoming her home.
  • I heard two wonderful authors speak. Min Jin Lee wrote Pachinko, a sweeping historical novel of Korean Japanese culture. Megan O’Gieblyn, a former teacher of mine, read from her collection of essays, Interior State, in which she explores being from the Midwest and her “deconversion” from an evangelical background.
  • Saturday I attended a class at The Loft, taught by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. Most of the participants are working on a full-length project and some are nearing completion. Elizabeth gave us a new lens for considering the power a finished manuscript continues to exert on us and the world, whether or not it’s published.

It has been a week. A week of feeling as if things are coming apart at the seams, and a week of sewing up, stitch by stitch, the torn places. Soon I will head to a nordic contemplative service, where the theme for these Sunday evening services is the chance to start again. Just what we all need.

If I Had a Song

The day our national narrative began to shift

The other day I surprised myself when I wrote this sentence:

“I long imagined myself to be a writer, a feminist, and an activist, only to realize that for many years I wasn’t really practicing any of these.”

Writer and feminist, I conceded, I could make a case for. What was living but a chance to accumulate material for writing? And hadn’t feminism long informed my values and actions? But activist? That was the word that gave me pause. It conjures someone marching in a crowd, waving a sign and shouting, or lying down in the street, waiting to be arrested. Definitely not me.

Then a message arrived in my in-box early this morning. It was a reminder from Liz, a musician, writer friend, and sometime DJ, who was hosting a radio program on KFAI on protest songs. Comforted to know I wasn’t the only person awake at 5:15 a.m., I responded immediately to tell her I planned to listen. As I made breakfast, I started humming.

Later, ear buds in place, I queued up her show while mowing, never enjoying cutting the grass quite so much. With the first chords of “If I had a hammer,” I teared up. My voice and heart swelled to the familiar lyrics. Many of the songs played were written decades ago, but the spirit behind them is timeless. There were songs from the labor movement like “Solidarity Forever” by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and “Joe Hill,” sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock. Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit and Judy Collins, “Bread and Roses.” (To hear the complete show, go to kfai.org, select “On Demand,” and choose “Stone Soup” for September 12.)

I grew up on this music. It shaped me. More than anything, it planted a seed in me. So what if the seed had been dormant for a long time?

Yesterday, my friend Claire and I showed up at the federal building near Ft. Snelling, where we have volunteered to sit in on immigration hearings for people who have been detained and whose futures are being determined: asylum, voluntary departure, detention, removal. Our role is to observe the judge, the attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, and the detainee’s legal counsel, if there is any, and note if any human rights are being violated. If a person doesn’t speak English, is a translator present? If the person doesn’t have legal representation, does the judge explain the purpose of the hearing and answer the person’s questions? We’ve been impressed by the judge and grateful when detainees have a lawyer sitting next to them. So far, we’ve seen no one’s rights being violated. But what we have seen are people shackled at the wrists and ankles, many from countries where human rights violations and violence are ongoing.

As we left the federal building, Claire noticed the flag at half-mast. 9-11. We paused, probably each remembering where we were when the Twin Towers collapsed. That was when I saw the straight line connecting that day and this one.

9-11 left our country reeling. We’d never been attacked like that before. Out of the shock of violation came a sprawling fear that lumped “everyone else” into one. It was on that day that our national narrative began to shift from red, white, and blue to black and white.

Maybe because of my “day in court,” certain lines from the songs I listened to lingered:

Any day now, any day now, I shall be released.

How many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?

If I had a song, it would be a protest song. “I’d sing out danger, I’d sing out warning, I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.”

 

 

 

Making Muffins

Enjoying not knowing what we might do next

I should have seen it coming.

That’s the great wisdom of hindsight, if only to remind me I’m not all that wise. But I am a planner, too often sure that I would have seen it coming, whatever “it” was, and adjusted accordingly, or avoided “it” in the first place. Planning, I need to remind myself, is not the same as anticipating.

“It” began with a busy spring. I was rekindling a romantic relationship, gearing up for gardening, anticipating a visit from my brother, preparing for two weeks in Scotland and Sweden, and, soon to turn 65, applying for Medicare.

“It” continued the day I returned from my trip in late June. That same day marked the arrival of Jim and my son and daughter-in-law. I was jet lagged, eager to see everyone, overwhelmed by a yard in need of attention just as a heat wave hit, still processing my trip, and suddenly living with someone again.

I should have seen it coming. “It” being, of course, life and its many twists and turns.

“Not knowing what the future will bring is hard for you,” a wise friend recently commented.

So when my granddaughter Sophie was going to spend a day with me this past week, I had all kinds of plans for our time together. We would go to the Como Zoo in the morning. After her nap, we’d check out a neighborhood park with a wading pool and playground. In between we would do a few craft projects. And, as a backup, I hauled up tubs of toys from the basement.

Nothing turned out as planned. The weather was unpredictable. Instead of going to the zoo, Sophie worked up enough courage to pet a neighbor’s cat. Instead of swimming, Sophie donned her helmet and cruised down the sidewalk on her Strider (a bike without pedals) as I ran to keep up.

“Would you like to make muffins?” I asked when we got back. She nodded.

While the muffins baked, we painted. Then the sun came out and we went for another bike ride, following a loud sound up the alley to where workers were reroofing a garage. Sophie wanted me to lift her up so she could see better. The voice inside me that was trying to organize our next activity was drowned out by pounding hammers and her complete attention on the workers.

Our day went this way, unfolding easily, randomly. I found myself almost enjoying not knowing what we might do next—like retirement is supposed to be. A puzzle? Writing on the sidewalk with chalk? Telling her a story before naptime (hers and mine)?

Her days are highly structured around day care and her parents’ schedules. Mine, around my plans. Maybe Sophie and I both needed a break.

I plan so I can be prepared, as if this is a necessary, if not essential life goal. Then I can continue the belief that I have some control. But life seems to keep testing this theory in which I’ve invested most of my money. Instead of a more traditional trajectory for love, I am experimenting with what a long-distance relationship might look like “at my age.” Once regular morning walks with a neighbor are less frequent, shadowed by a cancer that has upended her life. I am a woman who spends her day with words, but I hardly know what to say that doesn’t sound lame.

Surprises are great when it’s a birthday, not so welcome when an election or diagnosis is involved. That’s when I have to admit how little control I have over anything and everything, except how many cups of coffee I drink in a day.

My husband Chris had a heart condition that we knew would eventually take him, but we had constructed our own ending: retirement, grandchildren, some travel, then death. We never expected death to come early because we’d made it convenient for us.

I spent months mapping out a trip that was changed by a missed connection. Who doesn’t keep some kind of bucket list to convince ourselves there’s purpose to our future, only to die before we’re halfway down the list. Better to make muffins.

Planning becomes a fool’s errand when it gets in the way of being present. That’s what I should have seen coming.

The World Is Watching Us

How do we talk about being American?

I have been a traveler these past two weeks. First, I spent a week in Scotland and the Hebrides, then a week in Sweden with cousins. In some ways, the two weeks couldn’t have provided more contrasting experiences.

My travel companion Pat and I were on the go during our time in Scotland, sleeping in a different place virtually every night. We experienced unexpected delays, changes to our itinerary, and a storm that nearly stranded us on an island. We hiked the tallest mountain on Arran, Goatfell, which tested me physically like never before.

My time in Sweden was spent in Vasterbykil, a village of some 60 homes a few hours north of Stockholm. My days at Per and Gunnel’s lovely home were easy, languid. We sat in their garden for hours while the kites, kestrels, magpies, and skylarks filled the air with their distinctive sounds. We ate lunch in a small summer house. We lingered over every meal, and our evenings often ended at the table when we’d finished the wine. We read, we napped, we had excursions through the countryside that included a stop for coffee or lunch. One morning I got up at 3 a.m., long enough to see the midsummer sunrise.
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Since my first “real” trip—to Romania in 1972 with the Nordic Choir at Luther College my sophomore year—I’ve loved traveling. If not the planning and the jet lag, always the new places I experienced and the unexpected along the way. I’ve come home with a broader view of the world, often gratitude for what I have, and thoughts of where I might go next.

But this time, I was also reminded, as my half dozen trips to Central America reinforced, of the awkward embarrassment I feel as an American in another country. I’m reminded how much we have and expect. How extreme our political, economic, and social situations are becoming. How we keep “gaining weight” not just from food but everything else we use to excess: natural resources, power, money,  material things, and time.

The day before I flew home, I made an unexpected connection with an 84-year-old second cousin on my father’s side. Hardis was sharp, delightful, and a serious archivist of photos, articles, a log of visitors over the past 40 years (including my father in 1960), and a guestbook she asks everyone to sign.
Hardis greeted me warmly, we hugged, and then she said, “The last time I saw you was at your home in the states in 1971. Nixon was president then, but we won’t talk about that.”
Shortly after, as we sat on their porch and had coffee while it rained outside, she brought up our current president, then added, “We won’t talk about him.”

From that exchange and several others with people I met during my trip, I came home feeling that the whole world is watching us. Not with an envious eye, or out of admiration, or as a welcoming place it once was for our ancestors. More I sensed skepticism, distrust, especially concern that the America that once offered people a chance to write a new chapter to their lives has itself become a cautionary tale.

The Eye of the Storm

Even here, the world does not end

I woke before 5 this morning. Wednesday is a Fosamax morning. Last summer my doctor suggested I have a bone density scan, given my age and family history. Sure enough, the scan showed early signs of osteoporosis. So I began a weekly regimen. The instructions for taking the white pill are precise. Immediately upon waking, I must get up and remain upright for an hour before eating anything. I must take the pill and drink at least 8 oz. of water. Tuesday evening I make sure I have a full water bottle on my nightstand. I even cut the foil packet open the night before because my morning hands struggle to peel the backing away.

But before I took my pill and chugged the water, before I even sat up, I checked the weather on my phone. The rain that was predicted wouldn’t start until 6 a.m. Still foggy from staying up late reading, I pulled on clothes, grabbed my raincoat, and headed out.

A sudden wind came up. I checked the sky. Pale and dull, I noticed large areas to the south and west that looked like they were smeared with smoke. A few drops of rain dotted the sidewalk, but I was under the canopy of trees.

I have walked my neighborhood thousands of times over the 33 years I’ve lived here, mostly with a dog, now without. On instinct, I adjusted my route. The storm was coming fast, and I didn’t want to venture too far. I decided to walk a circle so I was never more than three blocks from home.

I kept checking the sky. The patches of dark had become one solid mass. The wind tugged at my hood. Down an alley, crossing a street, whenever I ventured into the open, rain hit me. The air became rich with smells the rain was stirring up. Through it all, the birds kept up their morning chorus.

The night before, my writers’ group had a public reading. Ten of us shared an excerpt from a current project. Some of us are working on memoirs. One read a chapter from her mystery; two others have essays in progress.

Our conversations before we took our turn at the podium revealed a general nervousness. We were all sharing our particular piece for the first time. By the end of the evening, though, our nervousness had given way to relief, even giddiness. The world had not ended. People had not stood up and left.

Me, I felt pride. Not the full-of-yourself boasting my mother warned against. The patriotic kind. I was proud to stand among other writers whose work it is to give voice to the dark and subtle and all-too-familiar places of the heart.

Every day writers walk into the eye of the storm, I realized, as I circumnavigated my neighborhood in the now steady rain. Last night we shared the hard, bittersweet stories from our lives, stories that won’t let us go.

Writers value the truth and pursue it, even when it hurts. They bravely come to their desk or chair or favorite coffee shop day after day, even when it feels impossible. We sing in spite of danger. We do it because we know where writing takes us, if it’s worth anything. To the eye of the storm, to the bloody center, where our craft demands that we throw every reservation to the wind and risk it all.

Every Day Is Mother’s Day

The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world

When I was in sixth grade, I had this assignment. I was to debate against classmate Bob Edwards the question, which is the better sex, female or male? While the question itself was wrong, I won because of my mother. When I told her I wasn’t sure how to make my case, she offered up an aphorism from her secret arsenal: The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.

This from a woman who quit her job as soon as her husband returned from the war so they could start a family, a housewife (by her own definition) whose work was never done, a woman whose work ethic set the bar in our family none of us has surpassed, a person who would do anything for the other.

Yet for much of my mother’s life, I didn’t give her much credit. I recognized that she was entirely capable, organized, compassionate, and generous, but there was one thing she did that made my gut twist. She put herself down. “I’m so fat” or “I’m so dumb” or “I’m so ugly.” None of her statements was true, yet it seemed almost necessary for her to remind herself of her unworthiness.

With the arrogance of youth, I vowed my life would be different. would be different. I was going to succeed where I believed Mother had come up short. I would rock the cradle and rule the world. (As a white woman who hasn’t felt constrained by race, poverty, or class, I recognize the privilege from which I write. Only in the realm of being female have I met resistance, while many women face resistance on multiple levels.)

Then I met my first husband while in graduate school. Within a year I’d quit my job in publishing, gotten married, and moved to Minnesota. I became pregnant and began freelancing. During that time I read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. She articulated the importance of women having a separate personal identity. She validated my need for self-actualization.

For the next forty years, two powerful forces did battle inside me. In an early novel I was writing, I explored this tension through the mother, a journalist, who tells her young son she is taking an assignment overseas and will be gone for a while. What would happen, the mother wondered, if she gave up what she loved—being a mother—for what she loved—the pursuit of her own dreams? Were these forces necessarily in conflict? Was it possible to have both?

As with so many of the writing projects I’ve attempted over the years, I didn’t finish that novel. I also didn’t finish exploring that question. Now I’ve come to realize that there is no answer, at least not an easy one. Or that the answer is different for every woman, regardless the generation.

I had many more opportunities available to me than my mother did. I have a college education and graduate degree. I’ve traveled widely. I’ve found expression and accomplishment through my work outside of the home. Still, as my own insecurities dog me, I am more like her than I ever imagined I would be.

For too long I’ve been a feminist of convenience, at little personal risk. In 1984 I attended the rally at which then-presidential candidate Walter Mondale introduced Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate to my cheers. I sat in the auditorium at Hamline University while Anita Hill recounted the abuses she endured from Clarence Thomas; for a few months I wore a pin that read “I believe Anita Hill.” I marched with thousands of women in January 2017, buoyed by a collective need to be heard, and then went about my life. Worst, I too often dismissed my mother as “just a mom” and ignored her daily, quiet effort to make my life better.

Mother may have been a traditional housewife, but she was the better feminist. Her agenda never wavered. Everything she did was for her children. She had dreams of a college education and a career (she confessed late in life that she would have gone to seminary had women been accepted) that she realized through her daughters. Accepting the limits society placed on her and she, sadly, placed on herself, she still chose to sacrifice her very self so that I might have a stronger sense of mine.

Mother’s was the hand that rocked my cradle, preparing me to make my way in the world. I remember and honor her and all the mothers who have made possible the freedoms I enjoy. Now I must do the same.

Waiting for Spring

I’m realizing just how much I haven’t said

As I slog through revision upon revision, a question keeps surfacing. How do I—who has embraced and experienced silence much of my life—write about it? And how do I persist when the horizon seems to keep receding?

Not easily, it turns out. And not quickly. Not without wanting to abandon the effort more than once. I’ve longed for this moment. I have the time and few distractions. I have the energy. But what about the will?

In most situations, I’m nothing if not determined. I set out to transform my yard and garden and, weed by weed, perennial by perennial, I did. I wanted to be a good mother to my children, and when I see what fine individuals they have become, I smile at whatever part I had. I wanted to lend as much quality and dignity to our mother’s last 10 years of life, and with steady support from my siblings, we did.

But when it comes to writing, summoning that determination has proved more challenging than I ever imagined.

It’s not that I’m undisciplined. I make a wide space for writing every day. I don’t check e-mails first or head down the labyrinthian paths of the Internet. But I also log plenty of hours staring outside and noting the activity of birds and neighbors alike. As Patricia Hampl reminds us in her new book The Art of the Wasted Day, daydreaming is good. There is value in allowing our often crowded mind to relax and wander down any path it chooses. Yesterday I was practicing this almost lost art when darting across my absent gaze out the window were gold and house finch, making their first bright appearance of the year in my yard.

It’s not that I’m a quitter (I could never face Mother in heaven, presuming I join her there), and I doubt I’ll go quietly into the night. Instead, I find a way forward, doggedly if need be. But has this bull-headedness met its match? Has my stubborn determination been stopped in its tracks by my attempt to tell the most personal of stories, my own?

“Make your story louder,” my writing coach urges. By that she doesn’t mean adding sound effects. She’s looking me in the eye and beckoning me—the reserved, private, insecure person I am—out from behind the curtain to center stage.

I’m finally beginning to realize just how much I haven’t said.

I’m beginning to grasp how many layers I’ve accumulated between my wounds and others’. Too often, I have used words the way they were used in my childhood home—not as tools for communication but as a means to keep us quiet so as to maintain a deadly calm. I can render a beautiful sentence, but every time I do, I wonder if I’m not creating another place to hide.

Writing I’ve understood as a solitary pursuit, and I’ve done my part to further that notion. When I sit down to write, my phone is muted. The radio is in another room and off. The dog I still miss sleeps at my feet. (When Marlon James declares he writes his award-winning novels in coffee shops, I’m mystified.) In my case, does silence beget silence? Does my isolation in order to practice my craft only reinforce the walls I’ve built?

What would happen if I shouted what was in my heart, a heart I’ve too often kept off-limits even to those I love? Would it feel like the arrival of Spring, unexpected and entirely welcome?